Friday, 5 February 2010

Affluence is not happiness!

"I want to go back to my daddy, because my mommy gave my sister and me away!", says the nine-year old Ines*. There has been hardly a sentence spoken in the last few days that better sums up the situation of the 33 children. They all feel distinctively that they have been given away. Some thought they were going to some great school, some had no idea where the trip was taking them. But they had a sense that they wouldn't see their parents again.

With every day that passes, the actions of the ten Americans seem ever more questionable and outrageous. The thin veil of religious righteousness barely disguises a shocking arrogance and total disregard of the parents' human dignity as well as of the children's needs and best interests.

Just think: A group of self-proclaimed missionaries from one of the richest countries in the world travels to one of the poorest, one that has been hit by a dreadful disaster to boot. Once there, they convince parents that their children will lead a life of misery if they stay with them, that they are unfit to take proper care of them, and that they, the missionaries, know better how to give them a good life. This patronising attitude can not, in my opinion, be justified by any religion whatsoever. The love of the children for their parents, their relatives and their home, it would seem, is irrelevant. The paradise beyond the border that these people promise is one of material commodities only. Happiness, apparently, is an orphanage with a pool and a football field, is "having it all". All, that is, except for the trust in the love of one's own parents, the most important people in anyone's life. Affluence equals happiness. And this is supposed to be a religious creed? I think not.

* Name altered for reasons of privacy

Thursday, 4 February 2010

"Give me my life back"

The images are all too familiar: for days now, staff from SOS Children's Villages Haiti and the international SOS emergency relief team have been driving through Port-au-Prince, past ruined houses and emergency relief camps. They provide food for the children from the poorest areas and try to distract them from the misery of their daily lives. The stories of the children and mothers in these places are very similar too. As Soraja Beaujour puts it, "Our simple lives were devastated in a few seconds. We didn't have much, but we had a small house, and we were together. I want to turn back the clock, and get my life back again.” The earthquake took everything she had. Her house was destroyed, and her husband and eldest daughter both died. Since then she has been living on the streets with her three sons.

Even before the earthquake many people had to rely on aid. People talk of poverty, hardly any education, and mothers without any qualifications. This was the reason why SOS Children's Villages had already set up 16 community centres to provide children and families with the bare essentials.

Then the disaster struck. Twenty more centres have since been set up. SOS Children's Villages visits them on a daily basis, and now provides food to over 4,000 children each day. The human suffering has increased beyond belief. Nearly everyone has lost all their worldly goods, most of them are mourning close relatives, and children are sick and malnourished.

"We are still sleeping on the streets. Now at least we have a sheet to cover ourselves, but not much else." Soraja is just one of many who wait every day for the community to gather in her district and the arrival of the SOS bus. Food is distributed and the people immediately begin to cook communally.

"It's about more than just eating for us - we get together. It makes a welcome change that brightens up our everyday lives. After the meal the staff of SOS Children's Villages play with the children, and they laugh and dance together. This gives us and the children strength and confidence. We feel that we are not forgotten on the streets, and that someone is there for us.”

These are all things that families like Soraja's desperately need. Most of the children have coughs, worms and eczema from living on the street. There is an SOS Children's Villages nurse present at every visit so that essential treatment can be given.

In the days and weeks to come, SOS Children's Villages plans to extend these activities to the poorest districts, taking aid directly to the children. It will not just be a case of distributing food parcels, as the aim is also to empower communities to help themselves. And what's more, SOS Children's Villages can be sure that the food really reaches the ones that need it most urgently - the children.

Soraja sits at the side while her children sing and dance. Now and then a little smile flashes over her face, even though her eyes are looking beyond the moment into a future filled with worries. But these moments give her support and some hope, before she starts looking again for a place to sleep on the streets with her three young sons.

Three new little villagers at the SOS Children's Village Santo

In a narrow alley in Port-au-Prince, not far from two large refugee camps: This is where two co-workers of SOS Children's Villages found three little orphaned children. They had caught the attention of a young man in one of the camps, who decided to show us the exact spot. The grandfather of the three little children had sought shelter in the vicinity of a Norwegian school and they were huddled under a plastic tarpaulin.

The three siblings - the one-year old twins Antoine and Anais and the two-year old Noelle* - lived in Port-au-Prince with their mother; their father had passed away a few months before. At the moment the quake hit, all four of them were in the appartment on the first floor. One of the walls collapsed, burying their mother beneath it. When finally help arrived, there was nothing more anyone could do to save her.

Miraculously, the three children were not injured, probably due to their size, which allowed them to survive in small cavities between chunks of collapsed wall. They were saved by their grandfather, who started digging for them with his bare hands right after the quake and was finally able to pull them out from under the rubble. Noelle was slightly injured on the arm during the procedure, the twins were unscathed.

Over the next few days, their grandfather took care of them, with staff members of the Norwegian school helping him as best they could. But he is old and poor and couldn't possibly take care of three children by himself.

Noelle still screams for her Mama. When the car that was to take them to the SOS Children's Village started to drive off, they all froze and started crying. The shaking motion had instantly taken them back to the terror of the earthquake.

*Names altered to protect the children

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The 33 stranded children find shelter at SOS Children’s Villages

It was a moving moment for many. Some of the SOS mothers actually shed tears when the 33 children arrived in the SOS Children’s Village after their long ordeal. As has been reported by various media channels, ten members of a Baptist church community based in Idaho in the US had tried to leave the country with the children by bus and were subsequently arrested.

The boys and girls were utterly dazed as well as hungry and thirsty. One baby, just two months old, was showing signs of dehydration. The children had no personal belongings with them, many were barefoot. They received immediate medical attention and care. All of us here at SOS Children’s Villages will do anything to find the parents or relatives of these children. In the mean time, we will give them protection and stability.

Just a few days ago, some readers reacted critically to my statements on international adoptions, but these recent developments only go to show how important it is now to keep track of every child. At the moment it is next to impossible to know whether a child still has relatives. Many of the supposed orphans have repeatedly said they still have parents. One eight year old girl started to cry as she kept repeating “I am not an orphan”!

I also don’t like the idea of temporarily taking these children to the United States or Europe. Not only would this rob the children of any hope of being reunited with their family soon, which is all that matters to them now, it would also not be a good idea to allow a child to experience a “first world paradise” only to send them back to harsh reality in Haiti a few weeks later.

That’s why I’m glad the government has made it very clear that removing children from the country is prohibited at this time. The United Nations and all other children’s organisations share our opinion: do not permit hasty international adoptions!

During our search for the relatives of these children, we will proceed with utmost care and return the children only in strict coordination with the social welfare authorities. Some of the children have been given telephone numbers under which to reach their parents, and we will carefully investigate these, too. We cannot risk having them being put on yet another bus for the border!

While we do our best to give these children some calm and safety, rumours have been spreading that there have been more cases like this.